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Course Syllabi and Announcements
  LIT 165 Syllabus
  LIT 165 Announcements and Assignments
  WRT 120 Syllabus
  WRT 120 Announcements and Assignments

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2008)
  A Reading of THE TEMPEST

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
  Goals of the Course
  Fundamental Questions about Literature
  Valuing Literature
  Critical Thinking and Reading Literature
  Critical Approaches to Literature
  Literature as ART
  Ambiguity
  Approaching the Art of Fiction
  Defining the Short Story
  Evaluating Short Fiction
  Craft of Fiction: PLOT
  Craft of Fiction: CHARACTER
  Small Group Exercise
  ARABY by James Joyce
  WHERE ARE YOU GOING, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? by Joyce Carol Oates
  Our RITES OF PASSAGE Theme
  A note about GIRL
  POE and the art of STORY OF A HOUR
  THE YELLOW WALLPAPER
  YOUNG MAN ON SIXTH AVENUE
  Notes on Innovative Fiction
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Fiction and Ambiguity - Your Questions
  Writing Workshop - Short Fiction
  Poetry Journal Project Assignment Sheet
  LITERARY SYNTHESIS PROJECT
  Defining Poetry
  Reading Poetry
  The Craft of Poetry
  Drama and Tragedy
  Study Questions: DEATH OF A SALESMAN

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
  Paper #4 Assignment Sheet
  Critical Thinking and Commentary
  Casebook: Evaluating Sources Worksheet
  Selecting Information
  Evaluating Arguments
  CASEBOOK PROJECT Assignment Sheet
  Approaching Persuasive Writing
  Topic Development - Profile Essay
  Generating Ideas for the Profile Essay
  Paper #2 Assignment Sheet
  Profile Exercise
  Analyzing THE FIVE BEDROOM, SIX FIGURE ROOTLESS LIFE
  Objective Writing: Selected Readings
  Writing Workshop: Paper #1
  Expressive Writing in the NYTimes
  Writing Effective Introductions and Conclusions
  Paper #1: IDENTITY
  Expressive Writing
  Open Letter Exercise and Examples
  EMERSON on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Literature related to IDENTITY
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
  One Last Look at Imaginary Worlds
  Franz Kafka's BEFORE THE LAW
  Analyzing WAITING FOR GODOT
  Approaching WAITING FOR GODOT
  Paper #3: Assignment Sheet
  Paper #4: Independent Project
  The Problem of Stability in BRAVE NEW WORLD
  UTOPIA/DYSTOPIA Links
  Analyzing Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  Defining Utopia
  Embarking on Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD
  A Reading of Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST
  From today's news (11/3/05)
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #2
  Goodbye to Dante's Imaginary World
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 10-34
  Stepping Through Dante's Inferno: Cantos 1-10
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 32-34
  INFERNO: Questions/Analysis: Cantos 18-31
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 12-17
  INFERNO: Structure
  INFERNO: Questions for Analysis: Cantos 1-5
  INFERNO: Analyzing Canto 1
  Relating to Dante's Inferno
  Approaching Dante's DIVINE COMEDY
  A Little Help with Dante's INFERNO
  Assignment Sheet for Paper #1
  Notes on LEAF BY NIGGLE
  Responses to LEAF BY NIGGLE
  ON FAIRY STORIES: An Essay by Tolkien
  Notes on Axolotl
  Reading Ovid's Tales
  From Myth to Literature: Approaching Ovid's Tales
  Notes on THE EYE OF THE GIANT
  Functions of the Genesis Tales
  Analyzing Mythic Tales
  Defining Mythology
  Filtering the Introduction to FANTASTIC WORLDS
  Commentary on LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI by Keats
  Commentary on DARKNESS by Byron
  Handout: Imagination Poems Set
  What is Imagination?
  Our Course Theme: Imaginary Worlds
  LIT 165 Assignments: Fall 2005
  LIT 165 Announcements: Fall 2005
  Imaginary Worlds: Course Syllabus

Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
  Paper #4: Independent Thinking/Reading/Writing
  Casebook Preparation Checklist
  Casebook Assignment Schedule
  Evaluating Sources for the Casebook
  Casebook Project Assignment Sheet
  Notes on Rational Argument
  Argument
  Assignment Sheet: Objective Writing
  Reviewing Elements of the Profile Essay
  Writing the Profile Essay
  Readings: Objective Writing
  Assignment Sheet: Expressive Writing
  Rubric for Evaluation of Writing
  About SKIN DEEP
  Emerson on Individuality vs. Conformity
  Mind-map: Identity
  Understanding the 'Rhetorical Situation'
  Assignments Page
  Announcements Page
  WRT 120 Course Syllabus for Fall 2005

ENG Q20: Basic Writing

Go Exploring
  Weblog for WRT 120
  Writing Assistance on the Web
  Blackboard at WCU
  WCU Homepage
  WCU's Francis Harvey Green Library

 

~~ Before the Law ~~


Read "Before the Law"

PRINTER FRIENDLY NOTES

This parable by Kafka is almost as enigmatic as Waiting for Godot! Maybe it's even more so. The situation seems as apparently meaningless and bizarre as the one we discussed in Beckett's play: a man from the country sits before a gate waiting for permission to "gain admittance" to the law. Since he is never granted permission, he never enters, though he waits for years—his entire life. He is about to die when the doorkeeper tells him, "This gate was made only for you. I am now going to shut it." The reader is left wondering, what can this possibly mean?

This "parable" (and we call it that because that's what the characters call it in The Trial, the novel where it appears) defies all our expectations for a parable, just like Waiting for Godot defied all expectations for drama. The parable, very much like this story, avoids proper names (we have a "man" and a "doorkeeper"), narrates a sequence of events that lead us to its one overwhelming point, presented at the end. Parables usually speak in metaphorical language, employing earthy, familiar concrete imagery to communicate abstract, complex ideas. We expect the parable to yield it's meaningful message, its moral lesson, if we read it allegorically. But as one critic explained, allegorical readings, especially of a piece like this, can wind up being "guessing games"—what's the right allegorical correspondence? What is the story or who are the characters "analogous" to? A criticism of allegorical readings is that to read allegorically is in some ways to read "behind" the story rather than "into" it. You are looking at its overall structure, or narrative pattern, rather than the details of the narrative itself.

Trying to read "Before the Law" allegorically, even if you want to, is no easy matter. Instead of down-to-earth concrete images, we have large abstractions like the "law"—and we struggle to figure out what it represents. We have a man from the country—who does he represent? What's the doorkeeper's business? So, although we have a parable, it's not easy to decipher. Is Kafka satirizing this form, or demonstrating how problematic interpretation can be? In The Trial the two characters, Joseph K. and the priest who tells the parable argue at great length as to its meaning, which is never exactly determined by either.

But in spite of its enigmatic shell, this parable has taken on an independent life of its own, and it's often excerpted and presented by itself, as a stand-alone work. Amazingly, you might see it as the Inferno and Waiting for Godot all rolled into one.

The Inferno?

  • Do you see any connection between the two works?
  • What is the "law" that this man from the country is trying to "gain admittance" to? Why must he get permission to gain admittance? Shouldn't the law be free and accessible to everyone? That's his expectation. Why is he stuck outside?
  • Why, since he's not allowed in, does he go on waiting? Is his waiting anything like the waiting you observed in Waiting for Godot?
  • Why does the doorkeeper give him a stool and allow him to wait? Why doesn't he just chase him away? Why does the man sit on the stool his entire life?

You have this image of a doorkeeper, of a gate, of many gates and many doorkeepers, each one more powerful than the last, which sounds pretty familiar. Each of the gates that marked the major divisions of Dante's Inferno were guarded by powerful, fearsome monsters. What did the monsters represent in Dante's work? What do these doorkeeper's represent in Kafka's parable? They are obstacles, barriers, seemingly impenetrable. Dante and Virgil can only pass through the gates with divine assistance. This man from the country has no such aid, it seems, or is it that he just doesn't ask for any? The doorkeepers may represent obstacles to justice—or maybe they are "injustice" personified. They are the essence of "unfairness." They are guarding the law, keeping people out, after all. If you could get past these doorkeepers you'd be getting past injustice.

Both the Inferno and "Before the Law" are about "law"—in the Inferno we are getting a glimpse of divine law, which is terrible. The consequences for breaking the law are fearsome. In "Before the Law" we don't know if we're dealing with divine law or human law, but since there's no mention of anything divine, it's probably okay to assume we're dealing with human law. But in each case, isn't the law signifying the same thing? It is all law. What is law? Isn't it our attempt to impose rationality and order upon chaos? Law is the basis of civilization, what separates us from our "primitive" natures—it's an effort to impose our power of reason upon all of our other impulses, and to give meaning to our actions by imposing consequences on them. In the Inferno, to break the law means suffering eternal punishment in hell. But in "Before the Law" the man from the country cannot even be "admitted." He's stuck outside. He can't get in. What does this imply, that the Law is so inaccessible to him?

Waiting for Godot?

  • Why does the man from the country wait and wait, for years, without taking any action?
  • Is his waiting like Didi's and Gogo's in Waiting for Godot?

This man from the country, like Didi and Gogo who go on waiting and waiting indefinitely, also goes on waiting in a very futile way—except we see that he waits for his entire life. We see him about to expire, and we must realize that he has wasted his entire life, all of his time. We're thinking, "the waste! The futility!" much like we do when we're watching or reading Waiting for Godot.

Both "Before the Law" and Waiting for Godot present uncanny, unforgettable portraits of the act of waiting.  They lead us to at least wonder whether this incessant waiting is heroic patience or idiotic absurdity.  Should the Law be this unavailable to the man, should it be something he needs to wait for permission to access?  Is he being victimized or is he being stupid?  By the same token, is salvation something we can expect to have to wait for? 

And finally, we might ask, is this man from the country acting in good faith or bad faith?  Is he avoiding his responsibilities or assuming them?

Random (and rambling) incomplete observations...

Should we understand the meaning of the title as meaning this man from the country has been taken in and placed "before the law"? In that case, is the law hostile to the man, bringing him there and leaving him there indefinitely? Maybe this poor man is innocent but powerless. Maybe he's stuck "before the law" because the law excludes him, or oppresses him. He can't get permission to enter because he's not privileged, or advantaged, or powerful enough.

We learn that the doorkeeper can't be bribed. What does this imply? No amount of material wealth (whether he had it or not) can change who this man from the country really is—he is someone completely inadmissible, or so he thinks. He never actually tries to enter, does he? He's waiting for permission.

If the man is brought "before the law" because he's broken the law, then why isn't he brought through the gate? Why is he left waiting outside?   What does his waiting mean?  Is he free to leave or not?

Is the man "before the law" in the sense that this is how it is before there is any such thing as rational law? The story places us in a "pre-law" era, a time when law was not really available, and so there's just this meaningless waiting for justice? We're "before the Law" in a time and place  when justice is inaccessible? If the law, being rational, grants meaning, then does being stuck "before" the law, mean the man from the country is in a meaningless place? A state of absurdity?

We understand that, ideally, the law is rational, an attempt to impose reason and order on what is essentially irrational, or random. Law "civilizes" us. That this man is excluded from the law seems to imply that he's excluded from civilization. He's in the jungle....in a time before the law, in a place without rational law—the survival of the fittest maybe, or the law of averages? Chance? Or perhaps the law is not as rational and reasonable as we believe it to be; perhaps the law is irrational, random, discriminatory?

It's interesting how the gates keep justice locked in, sealed away. It's almost like justice, the Law, is in some kind of ironic prison and can't get out and give this guy justice. And so we're in the realm of injustice. Paradoxically, it's the man who is free to wander around in the injustice air and the law that seems locked up and imprisoned—or maybe it's hiding, like in the Bob Dylan lyric, "Goodness hides behind its gates".… In the Inferno the gates are landmarks for different levels of hell…. Are these gates landmarks signifying anything? Maybe this first gate, with the least of the doorkeepers guarding it, represents your garden variety injustice—nothing personal, just bad "luck," a kind of random injustice that the man never transcends. Maybe the inner gates are guarding more serious forms of injustice like the injustices caused by lust, violence, corruption, fraud, greed, treachery, psychopathology—and sitting inside a nutshell somewhere deep within the bowels of this prison, the Law is waiting for someone to come and free it. But men, like this man from the country, are completely incapable. Inept. Absurd. They just wait for justice to come to them, they wait for permission to seek it, instead of just getting up and taking action and freeing it….

 

 

 

     

 


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